(Washington, DC) - The incoming Obama administration will need to put human rights at the heart of foreign, domestic, and security policy if it is to undo the enormous damage of the Bush years, Human Rights Watch said today in issuing its World Report 2009.
US leadership in promoting human rights will be vital, Human Rights Watch said, because at present the most energetic and organized diplomacy addressing human rights is negative - conducted by nations trying to avoid scrutiny of their own and their allies' abuses. And the human rights crisis in Gaza, where hundreds of civilians have been killed in fighting between Israel and Hamas, underscores the need for concerted international attention to the rights abuses that plague today's armed conflicts, Human Rights Watch said.
"For the first time in nearly a decade, the US has a chance to regain its global credibility by turning the page on the abusive policies of the Bush administration," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "And not a moment too late. Today, the most energetic diplomacy on human rights comes from such places as Algiers, Cairo, and Islamabad, with backing from Beijing and Moscow, but these ‘spoilers' are pushing in the wrong direction."
The 564-page World Report 2009, Human Rights Watch's 19th annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights issues in more than 90 countries, reflecting the extensive investigative work carried out in 2008 by Human Rights Watch staff.
The report documents ongoing human rights abuses by states and non-state armed groups across the globe, including attacks on civilians in conflicts in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgia, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan, and political repression in countries such as Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. It also highlights violations by governments trying to curb terrorism, including in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The report also addresses abuses against women, children, refugees, workers, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, among others.
The introductory essay by Roth outlines steps the United States and other governments that purport to support human rights should take if they want to reclaim the initiative for human rights from the "spoiler" nations that today so aggressively and effectively oppose them.
"As a vital first step, Barack Obama and his team should radically rethink how they fight terrorism," Roth said. "It's not only wrong but ineffectual to commit abuses in the name of fighting terrorism or to excuse abuses by repressive governments simply because they're thought to be allies in countering terror."
Roth notes that at the United Nations and in other international bodies, repressive governments have blocked scrutiny and censure for rights violations as too many democracies either stand by or mount an ineffective defense. Countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and Pakistan, supported by China, Russia, India,and South Africa, defend the prerogative of governments to do what they want by making claims of sovereignty, non-interference or regional solidarity. Washington has been unable to respond effectively, even where it seeks to uphold human rights, because of its recent record of abuses, mostly committed in the name of countering terrorism, and because it has forsaken effective multilateral diplomacy in preference for an arrogant exceptionalism.
Roth called on the new Obama administration to signal the US government's willingness to rejoin the international community and subject itself to the rule of law by "re-signing" the International Criminal Court (ICC) treaty, seeking membership on the UN Human Rights Council, and ratifying neglected major human rights treaties.
Some governments have profited from the US absence to undermine international protection for human rights. "It is a sad fact that when it comes to human rights, the governments with the clearest vision and most effective strategy are often those trying to undermine rights enforcement," said Roth.
Roth said that the human rights opponents have come to dominate intergovernmental discussions of human rights, downgrading UN scrutiny of severe repression in Uzbekistan, Iran, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, and compromising the UN Human Rights Council. These spoilers have also challenged criticism of the Burmese military government and tried to halt the likely prosecution of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan by the ICC over the deadly abuses in the Darfur region.
Governments seeking to play a negative role on human rights do so to forestall international scrutiny of their own or their allies' violations, Roth said. While saying they support human rights in principle, these nations cite sovereignty to avoid scrutiny of their records. Roth noted: "These governments make claims of regional solidarity or solidarity within the global South, but the solidarity that they have in mind is with abusive leaders, not their victims."
The report singles out many nations for such criticism, including South Africa for failing to address the crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe, Egypt for encouraging lessened scrutiny of the conflict in Darfur, and India and China for not addressing repression in Burma.
Human Rights Watch commends southern governments that have bucked the trend and spoken out in support of human rights, such as Botswana, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Zambia in Africa, and Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uruguay in Latin America. But it points out that smaller and middle-sized governments do not have sufficient clout to counter the efforts of the spoilers without help from the major Western democracies.
Roth's essay concludes that because the Bush administration largely withdrew from the defense of human rights after deciding to combat terrorism without regard to such basic rights as not to be subjected to torture, enforced disappearance, or detention without trial, it forced the European Union to act on its own. The EU responded admirably in the Georgia-Russia crisis and in sending monitors to protect civilians in eastern Chad. But the report says the EU also failed to project its influence more broadly, hiding behind a cumbersome decision-making process, carrying out half-hearted and ineffective diplomatic efforts and failing to project its influence in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, and Somalia.
"The successful defense of human rights will require serious self-examination and a willingness on the part of the world's democracies to change course," Roth said. "The task facing the human rights community is to convince both the traditional supporters of human rights and potential new ones to seize this opportunity."